Monthly Archives: August 2016

Two Steps Back, One Step Forward: reflections on 2016 Hugos

Now that the 2016 Hugos have come and gone, and this year’s “puppy” slate has been defeated again, it’s worth reflecting on the state of SFF in the aftermath. On the one hand, N.K. Jemisin’s deserved victory for The Fifth Season is a lovely punch in the face to Vox Day and his supporters, particularly since Day’s genre counter-revolution was signalled by his racist comments about Jemisin. On the other hand, this victory is rather dismal: the “puppy” interference with the Hugos in fact reveals deep-seeded problems with the SFF mainstream that might in fact be reified by these liberal common fronts against obvious reactionaries.

But first the good. Victories by the likes of Jemisin and Okorafor should indeed be celebrated. The “puppy” slate functioned according to the racist proposition that works by women and people of colour were only winning awards, or even being nominated, because of some PC conspiracy: true to racist form, Day and his ilk simply assume, a priori, that any SFF book that isn’t written by a white dude could only win because of some affirmative action liberalism. Such an attitude is common to a pseudo-meritocracy approach to art where a privileged artist-to-be presumes that if there was no affirmative action or multicultural ethos affecting the cultural industry then their work would not be excluded from an establishment that supposedly is only accepting work from oppressed people groups. “If only there was a level playing field based on merit,” they crow, “Someone would look at my book/art/music/etc.” The ignorance of this attitude should be obvious to anyone who has bothered to study society, culture, and the cosmetic “affirmative action” ventures that actually do exist. There is no level playing field based on merit, the game was rigged for people who occupy sites of social privilege for a long time, and these paltry “PC” ventures are generally cosmetic attempts to make the playing field even so that merit can be considered in a broader sense – cosmetic because they really haven’t accomplished that much except open some cracks. Cracks through which thankfully creep, for example, the victories in the 2016 Hugos.

For anyone who has bothered to read the winners it should be clear that the works indeed merit the awards and that it’s only because of tireless activism amongst fans and activists who care about more voices being published and heard – who are tired of the bland work of the singular muscular male golden age voice – as well as SFF being taken seriously as a literary object. That is, the so-called “PC conspiracy” is about “merit”, the fact that other voices and their works have merit. You really have to be a committed racist to believe otherwise, although most people who push this “I-want-to-back-to-the-days-of-merit” argument pretend otherwise: unless they’re like Day and his friends, who are pretty honest about their racism (though completely dishonest about their assessment of “merit”), these kinds of people are simply average liberals who refuse to accept that the good old days of the culture meritocracy were the good old days of excluding large swathes of humanity for consideration of potential merit. The literature and arts industry does not exist in a vacuum cleansed of all the shit that determines a social formation; it operates according to the messiness of multiple social relations.

So in this context it is definitely worth celebrating the victories of the 2016 Hugo winners. Let’s be clear: the books that won deserved to win because they merited the win and not, as the “puppy” conspirators (they’re the ones who really launched a controlled conspiracy movement) would have it, because of an affirmative action attitude. For example, Jemisin’s The Fifth Season was one of the best fantasy novels in the past year: it had an extremely creative world-building conceit, it was uber-epic, it had an organic history and back story, its characters were compelling, its story punched you in the gut, and it was very well written. The real victory, here, is that we now have people who have been traditionally excluded from SFF being published and being read by the establishment… Prior to this crack opening social exclusion would have been such that similar possible works would have never been published let alone received the promotion necessary to make it to the Hugos. This is a good thing… But is it enough?

The thing with the “puppy” controversy is that in some ways it functions to help obscure a larger problem. If we’re all completely honest about Vox Day and his slate supporters we would have to admit that they don’t really represent the average SFF reader and consumer let alone critic and producer. Day runs a shitty little vanity press that puts out mind-numbingly boring, derivative, and hackneyed work that anyone who has been reading SFF seriously for even a year – even if all they read was Tolkien and Asimov – would dislike. The fact that Day’s followers are “fake sci-fi boys” was brought home by We Hunted The Mammoth‘s article on the 2016 Hugos where the authors screen-cap reddit comments from “puppy” supporters that demonstrate their ignorance of the genre: they talk about reading Asimov and Herbert as children, as if their SFF experience is in the foggy past and not contemporary; they complain that The Fifth Season was a novel about “climate change” (and by a black woman, no less, which is their real problem) when in fact the “climate change” it is about has no real world resonance; they have nothing interesting to say about the genre’s history, and most probably the old names they mention (and that they can barely remember) would hate them as well. It’s pretty easy to dismiss Day and his followers as being SFF outliers trying to “game” the SFF establishment because they’re a bunch of illiterate “philistines”.

That is, the outlier status of Day and his noxious ilk function as convenient scape-goat for the SFF establishment (of which Day was never a part, and that he is resentful of) which is generally liberal. The SFF liberals can lament how Day is ruining their game, even though he’s playing it at its utmost boundaries: “he’s gaming the Hugos,” they complain as if it was never a game to begin with, and one that should necessarily generate people like Day. It’s a bit like die-hard Hilary Clinton supporters complaining about the “stupidity” and “philistinism” of Donald Trump supporters as if US politics was not an imperialist game that always permits a troubling fascism to develop in its underbelly; an elitist and establishment imperialism pretends to be horrified by a movement that isn’t playing the game according to liberal racism but out-and-out racism. The Democrats can endorse “Blue Lives Matter” and send out drones to annihilate Third World bodies, but lord help us when a Republican openly proclaims an honestly extreme version of US capitalism and mobilizes a largely under-educated white garrison population with populist rhetoric.

In order to illustrate what I mean here, let’s think back on the 2015 Hugos where the “puppies” were first accused of “gaming” these awards much to the horror of the SFF establishment… Just like the entire rotten US political establishment reacted in horror to the “gaming” of its elite ranks by Trump’s populism. In 2015 the “puppy” takeover was also temporarily defeated. Left liberals probably congratulated themselves on beating back the reactionaries and preserving the sanctity of the Hugos by generally rejecting the “puppy” slates. The victory was more moralistic than substantial. And yet many of the same people who were opposed to the right wing “gaming” of the Hugos tended to be the very same people who voted for Laura Mixon’s Hugo in the best fan writer category. They didn’t seem to realize that the politics behind the “puppy” slates were the very same politics of Mixon’s article. The fact that they condemned the “puppies” and not Mixon means that the former was victorious, that it was justified to game the slate again, and that you don’t need reactionaries to “ruin” a prestigious genre award when social fascists will do it for you. Indeed, George R.R. Martin lamented in one breath that the Hugos was “ruined” by this “gaming” but in another breath endorsed the Mixon article (which was basically white supremacist character assassination of an author from the global peripheries using identity politics as cover) which was beloved by people who were simultaneously condemning the “puppies.” Hence the establishment can still remain an exclusive operation as long as it functions according to the logic of supposed “good sportsmanship” and not the openly racist logic the “puppies” whose real sin was breaking with said sportsmanship. Mixon’s article might as well have been a “puppy” nomination (and apparently Day liked it) and yet, with the “puppies” as the convenient enemy and Mixon as an ally of those who hated the “puppies”, it in fact represented a declaration of the SFF establishment.

The problem, then, is that we have on the one hand an explosion of SFF work that is challenging the status quo (what I have called elsewhere a new renaissance in the genre) and two responses to this eruption: i) the establishment attempt to contain it according to acceptable boundaries; ii) a reactionary attempt to denounce it entirely along with the genre history as a whole. While the first response seems preferable to the second its logic in fact permits the reactionary option: a tactic of containment and boundary preservation will always signal the supposed necessity to cleanse the contained, the nostalgia for a supposed golden era of SFF is not easily defeated. Nostalgia is most often conservative.

Hence, while we should indeed celebrate the victory of the 2016 Hugo winners over all attempts to silence excellent SFF produced from the margins (which is where, in my opinion, great literature is usually produced), we should also think through the boundaries produced by the SFF establishment. If the same people who complain about the “puppies” can also promote racist hit-pieces (i.e. Mixon’s fan fiction win in 2015) then we are dealing with an establishment that possessed problems long before the “puppies” decided to play its game.

The Failure is Disappointing But Interesting: Meillassoux’s essay on Science Fiction

Quentin Meillassoux’s Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction is a worthwhile read in the same way that Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism was worthwhile. I read the latter shortly after reading Being and Event and its shorter and clearer form was helpful in elucidating much of the difficult conceptual terrain of Badiou’s ontology. Similarly, this short piece by Meillassoux, ostensibly about science fiction literature, was helpful in explaining aspects of his larger After Finitude. Beyond that it was a rather impoverished text if I was to treat it, without any interest of his larger philosophical project, as an authoritative analysis of Science Fiction literature.

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To give the reader a brief overview of the philosophical concerns of this Meillassoux piece, the author is interested in using Science Fiction [SF] and what he calls Extro-Science Fiction [XSF] as analogical material to elucidate his concerns with Hume’s problem of induction and how it has been misunderstood by 20th century philosophers, most notably Karl Popper. His contention is that Popper misunderstands Hume’s critique of induction as an epistemological problem when in fact it is an ontological problem. He uses science fiction, a literature that can imagine all of the epistemological problems and mysteries of science, to describe the ways in which the Popperian solution to Hume’s problem are in fact still trapped within the boundaries that Hume critiqued; he hypothesizes the possibility of extro-science fiction to account for what Hume really intended. Whereas proper SF is the literary imagination of science, and all of the epistemological impossibilities can be unified by the unfolding of scientific discovery (to simplify, analogical of Popper’s solution to Hume’s riddle, and one that Meillassoux does not think is a true solution), XSF can possibly illustrate the ontological problematic of a world deprived of causal order. “The guiding question of extro-science fiction is: what should a world be, what should a world resemble, so that it is in principle inaccessible to a scientific knowledge, so that it cannot be established as the object of natural science.” (6) And this inaccessible world is precisely the world that Hume’s arguments about causation are meant to provoke.

Since on this blog I’m more interested in the cultural dimension of critique, I’m not going to spend time engaging with Meillassoux’s philosophical points than what I explained in the above paragraph. Rather, I’m interested in how this extended essay functions as an analysis of the genre of SFF and whether or not this analysis works. My contention, here, is that it only partially works; it’s limited by the author’s ignorance of the genre. Maybe this is due to the fact that he relied on someone to furnish him with genre examples (Tristan Garcia), or that he was never interested in producing an actual analysis of SFF… But the problem I had with this essay, despite its usefulness in explaining aspects of After Finitude, is that it only partially functions as a thorough apprehension of the literature it attempts to represent.

The reason I say it partially functions as an analysis of SFF is because, on the whole, it does draw up an interesting dichotomy that is worthy of consideration. In fact, its pairing with Isaac Asimov’s story “The Billiard Ball” is one of its strengths. Meillassoux treats this “classic” SF short story as an example of the Popperian (mis)understanding of Hume’s problem, significant insofar as it even names itself after Hume’s analogy of billiard balls. This story “works” as SF because “it rests on the fact that the event, which is unforeseen in fact, as not unforeseen in principle, because a physical law can explain it. […] The [scientific] prediction has to be possible for the story to work; thus the event has to be subject to a theoretical law.” (22-23) Meillassoux then defines Asimov (and writers like Asimov) as those who paradigmatically demonstrate fidelity to SF because SF can never conceptualize anything other than a science fidelity that is bound by the very order that Hume ontologically critiqued. It’s all about stretching the epistemological horizons of a science that is taken to be ontologically acceptable rather than challenging its metaphysical assumptions.

Very well. I’m more than happy to see Asimov and other “classical” SF writers as avatars of a rugged and grounded way of looking at the world. They wrote in this manner, and were only slightly more interesting than Popper because they were telling fictional stories with characters that were kind of interesting, but were otherwise quite dry. In a context where reactionaries are demanding a return to this “classical” period of the genre I appreciate Meillassoux’s concerns about this period being no longer philosophically salient except to demonstrate Popper’s impoverished understanding of Hume’s dilemma.

What I don’t appreciate about this extended essay is the author’s general ignorance about his object of critique. In the past I have complained about how literature scholars treat philosophy as theoretical smorgasbord – where they eclectically mine philosophy like it’s an all you can eat buffet, where you can put anything on your plate just because – but now I think it’s fair to say that the inverse is also true. Philosophers can sometimes treat literature in the same way, and without any serious investigation of the literature they’re attempting to examine, speak with authority without having done the minimal work that should in fact necessitate this authority. That is to say, and as noted above, Meillassoux’s understanding of SF and even what he calls XSF is premised on a very antiquated and pedestrian knowledge of the genre.

Generally Meillassoux treats SF and the possibility of XSF as something that ended in the late 1970s. He also dismisses Fantasy, almost immediately, by assuming that entire connected genre is either the high fantasy of feudalism lite or something akin to Lewis Carroll; he can’t even grasp the SFF conjunction that might indeed provide examples of what he wants to call XSF.

Meillassoux’s only contemporary example of the genre is Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia that sticks out like the proverbial sore, throbbing thumb. It’s not even a good example of a possible XSF, what he calls the “Type-1” example of XSF that introduces “a single break, a unique physical catastrophe that would plunge the protagonists, overnight, into a world in which an inexplicable phenomena is massively produced.” (46) A much more interesting break that better demonstrates this XSF concept is Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy because it not only demonstrates this break but moves towards Meillassoux’s category of Type-3 XSF where “the real would go to pieces, progressively ceasing to be familiar to us.” (48) More to the point, all of this is contingent on an understanding of this “Zone” kind of SF first described by Soviet science-fiction authors the Strugatsky Brothers with A Roadside Picnic that Tarkovsky adopted into Stalker. M. John Harrison played with this XSF theme before Vandermeer in Nova Swing. Wilson produced a derivative and far less interesting iteration on this older theme with Darwinia that could not hit the level of XSF surreality Vandermeer finally consummated. This is not surprising: Wilson has always been, in my opinion, a derivative author. Hell, he even wrote a book about online AI sentience decades after this theme was already rendered stale by Neuromancer.

But what is significant about the history of the genre that Meillassoux’s use of Darwinia invokes is that he seems completely ignorant of what the Wilson book was derived from, and that was much more strange and appropriate to his XSF categorization. Meillassoux claims at multiple points that his XSF hasn’t blossomed into a sub-genre of speculative fiction (45-46) when in fact this blossoming pre-dated his essay and he did not do the work necessary to discover all of the examples within the confused SFF milieux that would give him a better appreciation of his own theory. What of the New Weird and its icons like China Mieville? What of Benjanun Sriduangkaew‘s clearly “XSF” short-stories that take place in her “Hegemony/Cotillion” universe? What of Cat Valente’s Orphan’s Tales or Prester John books? What of N.K. Jemisin’s latest Fifth Season or Kameron Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga?

The list could go on and on and on. We don’t even have to deal with what I have often called a “new renaissance” in SFF but skip back to the decades closer to Meillassoux’s impoverished understanding: what of the New Wave Science Fiction wagered by Moorcock and Ballard that pissed of the Asimov’s because of its rejection of properly “Science Fiction”; and what of Samuel Delany’s surreal queer SFF Ulysses, Dhalgren? To claim that this alter version of SF, XSF, is something that hasn’t really existed except for the few pedestrian examples Meillassoux uses really does demonstrate an ignorance of the genre. What he wants to describe already existed, already articulated itself in examples that were much more interesting than the ones he chose, and was for more heterogeneous than he supposed. In this context, Meillassoux’s entire analysis of SF is disappointing, a big proverbial face palm.

Now perhaps part of the problem of this analysis is the fact that genre faction is overcoded by anglo-hegemony, i.e. that most genre offerings are not translated into French. But since this is a known problem maybe Meillassoux should have chosen someone who was more aware of what the genre offered in English translation than the person he chose.

In any case, what is greatly disappointing about this attempted analysis is that in some ways it is a really worthy project in its attempt to describe an alter-SF articulation that does something more philosophically interesting than traditional SF. In many ways Meillassoux’s diagnosis and theorization is correct; its failure is in its inability to recognize an entire tradition of literature that would have fit these XSF categorizations and thus the analysis runs the risk of appearing amateurish to anyone who has been reading genre fiction over the past several decades. What I would like to see, and what maybe someone interested in Meillassoux who works within the field of literature could produce, is a revision of this essay that is properly aware of the genre. Then we would have a piece of philosophical analysis of SFF that is truly interesting.